Reverse Slope Gobblers
I once read that the Duke of Wellington was notorious for utilizing reverse slopes when deploying his troops. The famous general, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, would hide his forces on the far side of a hill or rise so that he could maneuver unseen, and ultimately conduct battle or ambush on his terms. If I didn't know better, I'd say the Duke was a turkey hunter.
It's a reasonable assumption. After all, reverse slopes provide the kind of tactical advantage that experienced turkey hunters look for - and for precisely the same reasons that endeared them to Wellington.
A Place to Hide
Let's begin with the obvious. Being on the far side of a hill, rise, or even small mound, hides you from the sharp eyes of any gobbler on the other side. If you've set up correctly, that longbeard won't even have a chance of seeing you until he clears the crest.
By that time, if he's been vocal, your gun should be up and ready, and you should be one trigger pull away from filling your tag. Certainly, there are times when silent birds will sneak in and catch you by surprise, but even then, when you finally notice them, they'll also be within range.
Which leads us to the central point of all this - a reverse slope only provides an advantage if you set up within effective shotgun range of the crest. The reason for this is that a tom will, in most cases, strut on the highest ground (the crest) so that any hen in the area will see his magnificent display. If you're too far back, you'll probably be out of luck. Similarly, being too close won't allow you to make the most of your gun's pattern. In my opinion, thirty yards is just about right.
A Bit About Location
When it comes to the actual topography of a reverse slope, you must look for reasonable terrain. A sheer precipice, on either side, is obviously not what we're talking about here. Instead set up in places that turkeys routinely travel through. Ideal spots are gentle hilltop summits within the hardwoods, the backside of a rolling hill, or even the low corner of a field or meadow - essentially, any terrain feature that prevents the turkey from seeing you until he's practically on top of you. You can even set up on a plateau, as long as you're far enough from the rim that the gobbler won't see you until he clears the rise.
If you have the sun behind you, so much the better - it'll illuminate the gobbler and place you in the shadows.
Room to Move
Setting up behind a reverse slope allows a hunter the option of moving unseen and relocating at a moment's notice. Obviously, this type of running and gunning can be tactically advantageous. For instance, if a gobbler is sounding off over the ridgeline and to your left, there's a good chance that you might close the gap by keeping the crest between you, moving until you're opposite him, and then quickly setting up once again.
Similarly, if a gobbler you were calling to hangs up somewhere on the other side, you can retreat a few yards and start your next calling sequence. This gives the impression of a disinterested hen, who is slowly leaving the scene - something which is often enough to make a desperate gobbler come in on the run.
The combined experiences of several experienced turkey hunting friends as well as my own have demonstrated to me that a few vital details need to be attended to when setting up behind a crest.
The primary one is camouflage. Some hunters believe that just because they're on a reverse slope from the gobbler they're calling, they can be less diligent about how they hide themselves. On the surface, this makes sense, since essentially the crest is hiding you until that bird gets within gun range.
Unfortunately, that thinking is flawed. First, there's always a good chance that the gobbler you're working will clear the crest very suspiciously with keen eyes atop an outstretched neck. He might just poke his head over the rise, see you, and leave, before you've even spotted him. And even if you did see him, a turkey's head just clearing the crest of a hill, does not present a great target. I, for one, would rather see his neck and beard, too. If he sees you first though, that might never be the case.
Let's also not discount the possibility of a gobbler coming in from behind or from the left or right on your side of the slope. Then there's the distinct likelihood that hens could blow your set up if you aren't hidden well enough. All these reasons support the case for due diligence when it comes to camouflage - which aside from the classic definition, also means having a comfortable sitting position so that you can keep your movement and fidgeting to a minimum.
You should also give some thought to where you'll place your decoy. Depending on the severity of the slope, this could be 10 feet or ten yards from the crest - the important thing is that the decoy is also hidden behind the reverse slope so an approaching gobbler must advance over the rise to see it. Otherwise, there's a risk that a gobbler will display or hang up on the far side of the crest, out of sight, and come no further. That leaves you with the risky alternative of getting up and trying to slip over the rise to get a shot at the bird - a gamble that rarely pays off.
One more thing about decoys; don't position your decoy right in front of you; instead place it off to the side a bit so that it draws an interested turkey's attention away from you. It's also safer.
I'm certainly not the world's best caller; but I have picked up a few tricks and bits of wisdom along the way. One is that most callers are too loud. That's okay when you're trying to draw in a distant gobbler but eventually, as they advance, you need to tone it down a bit. If you ever listened to hens up close, you'll notice that their volume is often turned to low.
Also, if you are sure a gobbler is just over the rise, it doesn't hurt to shut up a bit too. Often they'll clear the crest just to ensure that the hen they believe is there hasn't left.
Another trick that's far easier to pull off when you're behind a slope is scratching the forest floor with a stick to simulate a hen scratching. I once had a gobbler hang up on the other side of the crest at about 75 yards. I retreated 10 yards, produced a soft yelp and scratched the forest floor. He was over the rise, almost before I was ready.
Aside from that, all the regular calling techniques apply. As with any calling, mimic the birds, and if in doubt, remember that less is more.
A Word of Caution
I wouldn't feel right if I failed to include a brief reminder to be cautious when changing positions in the turkey woods. If you're hunting on private property and you're absolutely certain that you've got the place to yourself, then taking advantage of the mobility that this tactic provides shouldn't be a concern. But when you're in the vicinity of other turkey hunters or on public land, moving is riskier. In these instances, it's better to set up in a good spot and keep running and gunning to a minimum. You won't run the risk of getting accidentally shot or ruining another hunter's set up. Also, be sure you identify anything coming over the rise before lining it up. It might well be another hunter investigating your calling.
Setting up on a reverse slope is only one tactic in a turkey hunter's bag of tricks. And while it can certainly be deadly, it won't make up for sloppy woodsmanship, terrible calling, bad camouflage, or a poorly patterned gun. Nor will it take turkeys in places where there are none.
Still, if the terrain and situation allows, it can often make the difference. I guess the Duke of Wellington knew a thing or two - even if he wasn't a turkey hunter.
Steve Galea is a full-time outdoors writer who lives in central Ontario, Canada. He divides his time afield between hunting big game, chasing ducks, geese, and upland game, and fly fishing the lakes and rivers around his home. An award-winning columnist, his work is featured in several community newsapers as well as leading outdoors magazines.